Pride month: Policing and the LGBTQ+ Community


June 16, 2020

Lucy McKay - ICVA Director

  • custody visits
  • detainee welfare
  • diversity
  • gender
  • human rights
  • menstrual care
  • mental health
  • social media
  • volunteers

Every June in the UK we mark Pride Month, ahead of the anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York which began on 28 June 1969. While this year the usual events and parades will not be taking place for obvious reasons, it is still an important time for people who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer or any other gender or sexual minority (LGBTQ+) and allies to celebrate, reflect and speak out. 

Personally, I identify as queer [1]. I also sit on the board of directors at ICVA. I work in communications and policy, previously for the charity INQUEST, HM Inspectorate of Prisons and the UK National Preventive Mechanism. I support ICVA staff and the board with their communications. I wanted to take this moment to reflect on Pride, policing, and the role of independent custody visitors in standing with LGBTQ+ people today. 


The relationship between LGBTQ+ communities and police has historically been fraught, on account of oppressive anti-LGBTQ+ culture and the laws which upheld it. The Stonewall riots themselves were sparked by a police raid at the Stonewall Inn, a bar frequented by LGBTQ+ people, and were a response to decades of violent laws and policing in the US.

In the England and Wales, the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality took place in 1967, with the introduction of the Sexual Offences Bill which decriminalised homosexual acts between two men over 21 in private. A similar law was passed in Scotland in 1980 and a European Court of Human Rights judgement overturned criminalisation of these acts in Northern Ireland a year later [2]. 

Despite this change, the lives and sex lives of gay men in particular were still heavily policed in subsequent decades, particularly the 70s and 80s as well as in the 90s. I’d recommend listening to the moving first-hand accounts of this in The Log Books podcast, which looks at the archive records of the LGBT helpline Switchboard. 

After many failed attempts to change the law in parliament, only in 2001 was the age of consent for homosexual acts made equal for men (there were no equivalent laws for women), and some other discriminatory laws around sex overturned. The policing of trans and gender-non-conforming people is less well documented, but certainly the lives of trans people have been heavily policed through anti-gay and other laws.

LGBTQ+ people and policing today

For the most part LGBTQ+ people are now equal under the law and our rights are protected by the UK Equality Act (2010). However, LGBTQ+ people are disproportionately more likely to experience mental ill health and have issues with alcohol and drugs [3], experience homelessness [4] and other broader inequalities. This disproportionality is worse for trans people, or where people are LGBTQ+ and from black, Asian, or minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. 

LGBTQ+ people are also significantly affected by crime, violence and discrimination, including domestic abuse [5] and hate crime [6]. Incidents reported to the police are only the tip of the iceberg, with many more experiences of violence and discrimination going unrecorded and unreported for a variety of reasons, including mistrust in police [7]. 

There are no statistics available on how many LGBTQ+ people come into custody or contact with the police in the UK. The police could certainly do better in recording such data, to identify relevant issues and better inform policy and practice both within and beyond custody. What we do know however is that the range of issues which disproportionately affect LGBTQ+ people can lead to increased interactions with police, and indeed increased vulnerability. 

The Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful for police officers to discriminate against, harass or victimise any person on the grounds of the protected characteristics, including “gender reassignment, sex and sexual orientation, marriage and civil partnership”. This is made explicit in the Police and Criminal Evidence (PACE), Code C. 

This code also advises that police officers show particular sensitivity when dealing with transgender people [8]. This is particularly relevant in terms of how searches are conducted, and what healthcare, hygiene and welfare needs a person might have. Overall, the guidance advises asking people what their gender identity is and treating them accordingly. There is no other specific national guidance around LGBTQ+ people, though some forces do have their own policies. 

The role of custody visitors 

Independent custody visitors are the eyes and ears of the public, behind the closed doors of police custody suites and stations. Overall, ICV schemes are in place to promote the welfare of detainees and deliver effective oversight of police custody, in order to prevent ill treatment. 

Discrimination of LGBTQ+ people at the hands of police is in our very recent history, and reports indicate that mistrust of police and experiences of discrimination continue. While there are now high-profile LGBTQ+ police officers and networks, officers can still hold prejudices and be ignorant or unaware of guidance. As LGBTQ+ people are more likely to face particular issues and in some cases have additional needs, the oversight and support of custody visitors is particularly important. 

In 2018, ICVA developed a bitesize training for custody visitors on transgender detainees, to ensure that visitors have a good understanding of language, official guidance, and the needs of transgender people in custody. The training includes information on using names and pronouns respectfully, and specific things to look out for and highlight to custody staff and police officers where necessary. 

For example, ensuring menstrual products are made available to trans men or non-binary people should they need them, or considering pre-release arrangements in case a person’s clothing and gender presentation at the time of arrest may no longer be appropriate or safe for them. The training was written in consultation with trans people, and I believe is an important piece of work by ICVA.

These are simple issues of welfare and dignity, which it is important to consider all year round. But as it is pride month, I would encourage any custody visitors reading to revisit that training and refresh your memory. I would also encourage visitors to consider issues that LGBTQ+ people disproportionately face such as mental health, homelessness, and intoxication. 

It is also important for visitors to be mindful of the history of LGBTQ+ people and policing, and broader experiences of discrimination today which may inform continued fear and mistrust, particularly for trans people and those who are also from BAME groups. 

As a queer person I am grateful for the proactive approach ICVA takes in ensuring visitors have access to information and training on this. Ending up in custody is not likely to be a great moment in anyone’s life, but knowing that there are well informed members of the public volunteering their time to help protect the rights of those who are detained is an important protection which I am proud to support. 

[1] Queer is an umbrella term which some people use to identify broadly as sexual and/or gender minorities which are not heterosexual or are not cisgender. It has been reclaimed from its original derogatory use. Learn more here.

[2]Timeline of LGBT history in the UK – Wikipedia

[3]Stonewall (2018), LGBT in Britain – Health Report

[4] Stonewall (2018), LGBT in Britain – Home and Communities

[5] Ibid

[6]Home Office (15 October 2019), Hate crime, England and Wales – 2018 to 2019. Also see Stonewall (2017,) LGBT in Britain – Hate Crime and Discrimination.

[7]UK Equalities Office (2018), National LGBT Survey.

[8]PACE Code C (2019), see page 88.